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Preseason Five: Penn State Eyeing Start of 2018 Season

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By Will Desautelle, GoPSUsports.com student staff writer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State men's volleyball returns to the hardwood Friday evening to kick off its 2018 campaign. Head coach Mark Pavlik enters his 23rd year at the helm with 542 career wins as Penn State returns from a 2017 season where it captured the EIVA regular season and tournament titles for a berth to NCAA Championships.

Pavlik returns the large majority of his team's production from a year ago, looking to build on a successful 2017 campaign.

Take a look at five 2018 storylines before heading to Rec Hall to catch the Nittany Lions open the season this weekend.

Replacing Nugent and Callaway
Penn State loses just two major contributors from last season's team in outside hitter Chris Nugent and middle blocker Matt Callaway. Nugent, a three-year starter, was the team's top outside hitter and was excellent both behind the service line and on defense. Callaway, on the other hand, was a reliable blocker up front and one of the key veteran leaders of last year's team.

"We're hopeful that Aidan Albrecht, after the second half of the season he had last year, steps up and continues the run that he had," Pavlik said. "Along with Aidan, you've got Matt McLaren, who's in his fourth year. We've got Lee Smith who's coming back from the injury, who looks like he hasn't left. We've got some experience back there. I think it's just going to take a little time for the chemistry to roll around."

When it comes to Callaway, the Nittany Lions will also look to lean heavily on redshirt senior middle blocker, Kevin Gear, who had a strong second half of the season last year. 

Who's Returning
The Nittany Lions return almost all of their key contributors from last season, including All-EIVA honorable mention setter Luke Braswell. Braswell has a chance to be the top setter in the league this season. 

Despite losing Nugent, there will be no shortage of reliable pin hitters for Penn State this season. Albrecht was a second team All-EIVA performer last season and Smith could be a potential breakout player for the Nittany Lions, with Pavlik impressed with the progress he has made following his recovery. 

"Lee [Smith] before the injury and right now is probably our best pin blocker and one of our top passers. We'll see where his jump is when we get into the real live stuff, but everything we see in practice leads us to believe he's right there," Pavlik said.

Then there is first team All-EIVA right side hitter Calvin Mende, who could be in for a huge year. A 6-foot-11 inch lefty, Mende is a matchup nightmare on the right side for opposing outside hitters.

Looking toward leadership on the team, Pavlik noted that Albrecht, Smith, and Braswell will serve as team the captains, who will be called upon to lead a relatively youthful group. 

"Our strength lies with our youth and our numbers lie with our youth, first, second, and third year guys, but our fourth and fifth year guys understand what's at stake," Pavlik said. "They are feeling that athletic mortality and I think that's what has jumped up their leadership abilities."

Penrose to Middle Blocker
One of the more interesting storylines leading up to this season is redshirt senior Jalen Penrose, who will be primarily used as a middle blocker this season rather than a right side, where he has played his entire career so far at Penn State. 

Penrose is arguably the most powerful hitter on the roster and was one of the most dangerous servers last season for the Nittany Lions. It was inconsistency though that kept him from seeing a larger role on the court.

For Pavlik, he refers to Penrose as his new "middle attacker," as the staff hopes that making this switch will help Penrose play to his best strengths this year.

"We can get him the ball in maybe some better situations than he was used to at the opposite position," Pavlik said. "With [Calvin Mende] at opposite, I think we're in pretty good shape back there. With Jalen, trying to figure out a way to get his arm in the game, throughout the fall and certainly through the last week, I think we're seeing some progress made by Jalen in the middle."

Pavlik also acknowledged that his lack of experience at the position at times will not allow him to do certain things from that spot on the court. At the same time, however, his physicality and athleticism could make him a real difference maker in the middle.

Only time will tell how effective this move will be, but regardless it will be one of the more interesting things to pay attention to this season.

West Coast Trip
Following opening weekend at home, Penn State will travel to Los Angeles, California in the second weekend of the season for the Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge and take on No. 3 UCLA on USC. 

Matching up against some of the top national talent, the trip will be a great indicator of where Penn State is early on in the season, also serving as a valuable early season experience given that UCLA is hosting the NCAA Championships this year.

"[UCLA] returns just about everybody and they're always a handful to play certainly at their place," Pavlik said. "USC has started off pretty well this year and we're going to get a chance to see them again."

Around the EIVA
Penn State has traditionally been the dominant team in the EIVA, but the league continues to get stronger each year, which will only make things more challenging for the Nittany Lions going forward. 

"There is such a feeling of pride I have for the effort that the coaches have put in the EIVA," Pavlik said. "Are they going to make it tougher on us? Absolutely, but I think that's going to make us better and for years that's what we've needed. With what Princeton is doing, what Saint Francis is doing, George Mason - and NJIT having a brand new facility over there, I am just really excited about this league right now."

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